Adrien de Gerlache (1866-1934), born in Belgium, was the commander of the first truly scientific Antarctic expedition.
It was the most important expedition to the area between the late 19th century and World War I. Gerlache took his expedition to the Pacific Ocean side of the Antarctic Peninsula, became caught in the ice, and spent the winter of 1897-98 there.
In 1896, de Gerlache purchased the Norwegian-built whaling ship Patria, which, following an extensive refit, he renamed the Belgica. Together with a multinational crew which included Roald Amundsen, Frederick Cook, Antoni Bolesław Dobrowolski, Henryk Arctowski and Emil Racovita, he set sail from Antwerp on 16 August 1897.
During January 1898, the Belgica reached the coast of Graham Land. Sailing in between the Graham Land coast and a long string of islands to the west, de Gerlache named the passage Belgica Strait. Later, it was renamed Gerlache Strait in his honor. After charting and naming several islands during some 20 separate landings, they crossed the Antarctic Circle on 15 February 1898.
On 28 February 1898, de Gerlache's expedition became trapped in the ice of the Bellinghausen Sea, near Peter Island. Despite efforts of the crew to free the ship, they quickly realised that they would be forced to spend the winter on Antarctica. Several weeks later, on 17 May, total darkness set in, which lasted until 23 July. What followed were another 7 months of hardship trying to free the ship and its crew from the clutches of the ice. Several men lost their sanity, including one Belgian sailor who left the ship "announcing he was going back to Belgium". The party also suffered badly from scurvy.
Finally, on 15 February 1899, they managed to slowly start down a channel they had cleared during the weeks before. It took them nearly a month to cover 7 miles, and on 14 March they cleared the ice. The expedition returned to Antwerp on 5 November 1899.
The expedition was made possible with the encouragement of the International Geographical Congress and other expeditions were sent out by several different nations, including Britain, commanded by Robert Scott and Carsten Borchgrevink (1864-1934) and Germany, commanded by Erich von Drygalski (1865-1949).